Ex­huma­tion project a work in progress


Did New Zealand’s ear­li­est set­tlers from the United King­dom come to a bet­ter life?

At a well at­tended pub­lic meet­ing in Mil­ton last Tues­day to of­fi­cially un­veil the ini­tial find­ings of the St John’s Burial Ground ex­ca­va­tions project, Univer­sity of Otago ar­chae­ol­ogy coleader, Pro­fes­sor Hal­lie Buck­ley, said these Mil­ton pi­o­neers were sold a story that New Zealand was go­ing to be a much bet­ter place than the one they left.

Whether it was or not was still ‘‘a work in progress’’, she said.

From the death cer­tifi­cates, the ar­chae­o­log­i­cal team knows that 20 per cent of these peo­ple had tu­ber­cu­lo­sis - TB.

Sci­en­tists were analysing the strain to see if it was the same one that dev­as­tated the Maori pop­u­la­tion, Buck­ley said.

‘‘We’re in­ter­ested in the DNA strain to un­der­stand how it is dif­fer­ent to the one Maori had be­fore Euro­peans ar­rived.’’

It was a vi­tal piece of re­search, bear­ing in mind that TB has crept back into New Zealand in re­cent years, she said.

The other killer was ac­ci­dents; bro­ken bones spoke of vi­o­lent trauma, she said. The av­er­age age of the adults ex­humed was 45.8 years, and com­pared with the av­er­age life ex­pectancy in the UK at the time, some of them lived out long lives in their new home.

But the in­fant mor­tal­ity was high. Chil­dren died of­ten. In the ma­jor­ity of the 16 graves of chil­dren and in­fants un­cov­ered, only the teeth and hair re­mained.

‘‘This was rather con­fronting, but find­ing hair has given us the op­por­tu­nity to un­der­stand health and dis­ease,’’ Buck­ley said.

Hair holds a per­son’s his­tory as well as their DNA.

Teeth tell the story of diet from child­hood. Sugar was start­ing to be widely used at the time, so peo­ples’ teeth showed cav­i­ties, she said.

Pipe smok­ing was wide­spread; ar­chae­ol­o­gists could tell by the grooves in the back teeth.

Bones also bear wit­ness to stress or ill­ness. Mal­for­ma­tion from rick­ets caused by mal­nu­tri­tion was ob­vi­ous in one skele­ton, yet to be fully iden­ti­fied.

DNA se­quenc­ing will start in Oc­to­ber, which will com­pare ge­netic ma­te­rial found in bones, teeth and hair, with their de­scen­dents’ DNA taken from cheek-swab sam­ples, to match-up what is known from his­toric records and death cer­tifi­cates, about the peo­ple buried in the ceme­tery.


The Univer­sity of Otago re­search team ex­ca­vat­ing graves at St John’s Burial Ground at Mil­ton


A cof­fin han­dle from the St John’s Burial Ground ex­huma­tion project.

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